Zahra Komeylian is an artist, educator, and social-justice advocate. She recently completed her Master’s of Psychology in Education from Columbia University in New York City. Drawing from the poetry of Sufi poets, and symbolism, Zahra experiments with clay-based contemplative practices which can be used to bolster mental-health resiliency, and develop flow and self-compassion. Her art is informed by the confluence of her intersecting identities as a diasporic Iranian Muslim woman raised in Canada. Zahra’s art work offers her a radical space where she can create, depict and reflect on personal experiences of negotiating identity within the sociopolitical context.
During her residency at SKETCH Indie Studio, she experimented with modern renditions of Islamic architectural geometry onto pottery; and the creation of Farsi calligraphic sculptures based on the deconstruction of language and words. She is the founder and program lead for Project ArtPowerment, a grassroots initiative providing spaces to empower North Etobicoke youth through art and critical discussion.
Follow her work on Instagram at @zizee_.
The practice that I primarily focus on is ceramics. I engage in both pottery and sculpture.
For the past year, I’ve been focusing on learning pottery more intensely. During my Indie Studio residency, I pursued a series of creative experiments inspired by Islamic geometry, and Sufi mystic poetry superimposed on pottery. This work is informed by a nostalgia surrounding my cultural roots as a diasporic Iranian. My childhood memories are of sunshine, bitter orange (Naranj) blossoms, and pomegranate trees in my grandmother’s backyard in Shiraz.
Zahra’s pottery and ceramics work (above and below)
Although those people and even that house are no longer there, I relive the love I have for them through my art. I honour them, my land, and my identity. In this sense, my work is a practice of self-discovery; art allows these feelings and experiences to surface in a way that is meta-verbal (beyond language). Colours are a large part of my expression. Some techniques I use involve carving, cutting through, and etching on pottery pieces. Furthermore, my sculpture series uses the deconstruction of Farsi words into their constituent letters.
I often engage in a contemplative process with the clay. So, sometimes I might start with a word, image or symbol. I may journal about it, and have it in the back of my mind throughout the day or the weeks, or even months. Eventually the ideas click together, synthesizing them a little more. I might journal on them numerous times. Once I have an idea that has some momentum or some heat to it, I’ll start to meditate on the clay with a little music–observing where the clay is taking me and how it wants to show up. I listen to a lot of traditional Persian music. Often there are lyrics from Rumi and Hafiz and other Sufi mystic poets. They are my muses. My spirit feels deeply connected to them. Their words inspire me to uncover deeper meaning in the images that I may have been chasing.
I feel that I can’t understand myself outside the context of my cultural roots. It’s not that I was particularly interested in my own culture, rather I was always pulling away from my language, Persian poetry and literature, which my dad wanted us to hold on to. It was when I started practicing art in 2013 that I came face to face with the fact that my understanding of myself as a spiritual being is deeply grounded in my cultural language, symbolism and imagery.
Although I’ve been in Canada since I was nine, and as much as I wanted to assimilate as a teen and a young adult, I realize that I will always be a diasporic Iranian looking into Canadian society–this will always be the social location that I occupy. It’s a liberating feeling, knowing that I can just be.
My art is my form of resistance. I am unapologetic about my personhood. I demand visibility beyond limiting societal conceptions of Orientalism, Muslim-ness and womanhood, by defining these intersections for myself through my work.
Read part two of Zahra’s profile next Tuesday.